It’s a scary thought, for me not you, that I started mothing 25 years ago! Back in those days there was no internet so none of the on-line resources that we all find so useful for all manner of things these days. I had just two moth books in those days, one was Bernard Skinner’s Moths of the British Isles and the other was A Complete Guide to British Moths by Margaret Brooks. Both these books covered only the macro-moths so for several years that was all I recorded until later I got a copy of Barry Goater’s British Pyralid Moths. Plate 10 of Skinner covered the pugs. All 51 British species were depicted there at life-size and due to poor quality printing, with most of the definition and colour lost, it meant that many specimens, even if very fresh, could not safely be identified. Plate 7 in Brooks was only marginally better. It was only much later that I acquired a copy of An Identification Guide to British Pugs published by the BENHS in 1981. This has a good detailed text and although again the set specimens are depicted at life size the definition is considerably better than the other two books and the colours are better too although lacking the green colouration of some species.
Towards the end of 2015 issue no. 55 of Atropos magazine dropped on the mat and contained a very interesting article by Brian Hancock entitled Targeted Searching for Pugs by Dusking in North Lancashire and South Cumbria. He describes how he has netted 29 pug species in his area and describes in detail his finding of ten of the more interesting ones. This was enough of a trigger to spur me into action to try and find and photograph the species that I have not yet seen. I can only think of two species off-hand that does not occur here in Hampshire so our county is much richer than in Cumbria and Lancashire.
For the collectors of the past the finding of larvae and breeding them through has been the preferred method of obtaining fresh specimens although Brian Hancock clearly showed that often dusking with a net can produce equally fresh specimens. For me with photography in mind and the additional challenge of finding larvae to photograph I think I will adopt both approaches this year with constant reference to the BENHS book and Jim Porter’s more recent Caterpillars of the British Isles.
And so it was that yesterday Lynn and I set out to Bransbury on the River Test close to my home to see if we could find Sloe Pug larvae. They overwinter as eggs that emerge as the blackthorn starts to blossom and the traditional method is to beat the taller arching branches over a beating tray. I should say that the larvae are white with a reddish dorsal line and are remarkably well camouflaged on the blackthorn flowers on which they feed. Even the head capsule looks remarkably like an anther on the end of the stamens. So I knew what we were looking for, and theoretically how to find them, but after three of hours of beating the blackthorn and carefully inspecting the contents of the tray we had found nothing more than a couple of other geometer larvae – I hadn’t expected it to be this difficult! But I wasn’t going to give up that easily and we moved into a slightly more sheltered area where there was no obvious grazing line on the bushes and bingo! Two small larvae on the tray one of which was certainly a Sloe Pug, and adjacent bushes produced another three at least. For anyone wishing to find their own do note that the larvae can be very easily overlooked even on the black cloth of a beating tray. It is best to disperse the flowers that have dropped onto the tray and allow a couple of minutes for any larvae to attach to the cloth before gently shaking the flowers to the edge and re-inspecting.
When I relayed the story to Colin and sent him some pictures for the website he asked what the next quest was and I had to admit that I hadn’t given it any thought. But that evening I read that this was also the time to find Slender Pug larvae. The technique here is to collect sallow catkins from the ground, lay them on white paper and after two days lift each to see if there is frass underneath indicating the presence of a larva. So - no time like the present and while we were out at a couple of sites today we collected up plenty of catkins. And do we have any larvae? Well yes… at least one which I noticed while laying them out on paper! No photos yet as it was quite small - but watch this space…